Last weekend saw ‘The March For Science’, where hundreds of thousands people from across the world took to the streets to protest how facts, data, and science are being used in our society. According to the group that organized it, ‘The March for Science champions robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity. We unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence based policies in the public interest.’ The reason for the march is that many people believe that facts are no longer being taken seriously given the largely anti-fact media and statements surrounding both the election of Donald Trump and the referendum that led to Brexit.
It is a media narrative that has been playing out over the past 12 months with the term ‘fake news’ becoming one of the most used in public life. It instils the sense that few things are being done with data backed evidence and is instead being decided purely on emotion and gut feeling.
This feeling is not surprising given how it is being discussed in governments. Scott Pruitt, recently appointed head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, tasked with environmental protection in the US recently said of the impact of humans on global warming that, ’I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact, so no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.’ This flies in the face of 97% of all data and scientific papers on the subject which suggest that humans have a clear and inarguable impact on climate change.
When only 31% of Donald Trump’s statements are either true, mostly true, or half true on Politifact, compared to 69% being at least mostly false, it is clear that there is a general perception that lies and ignorance of facts are pervasive at the top of the country. Even in the UK during regular exchanges between the Prime Minister and other MPs the data being used on issues like the NHS and public spending are so distorted by both sides that for somebody who doesn’t have the data in front of them as its being said, it is impossible to know who’s correct.
With all of this and with a backdrop of The March For Science, it is inevitable that people believe that in 2017 we are living in a world with little regard for facts.
However, the truth is that the world we live in is actually driven more by facts than at any time in history and is becoming more fact driven every day. People’s decisions both on a societal and individual level are based on the data collected about a subject, either by themselves or by others. We have music playing services that can factually show the optimal beats per minute for exercising. We have shopping services that can show you items you are most interested in from the factual information surrounding your previous purchases. We can even see the exact amount of electricity we use on an individual level thanks to smart meters.
Ironically, one of the reasons we can be sure of people like Donald Trump distorting facts is that various forms of data have allowed us to see what’s true and what’s not. For instance, during the campaign he claimed that he was against the Iraq war before the invasion, but thanks to a tape of him saying he supported it, the lie was uncovered. Similarly, there are examples of Nigel Farage saying that the UK would give £350 million to the NHS if they left the EU, despite him claiming that he never said it. We have data in a variety of forms collated in a way that allows us to search through it easily, we no longer rely on secondary sources to validate facts.
The society we live in may well seem like facts are meaningless, but this is because the data that impacts us the most isn’t obvious. The problem we have is that the most visible uses of facts from those with the most power is currently in crisis and is also those covered most by the media. This muddies the water for everything, from basic national polling, through to the reasons behind a specific decision, or even military decisions.
We need to understand though, that the flaws of the few in getting facts wrong through either self-serving actions or ignorance does not represent the actions of the many organizations and individuals making the world a more data-driven place. 2017 is a year in which we will see this continue at pace with the data revolution having already taken place and the world becoming more data savvy, even if those with the mouth piece often tend to run counter to that.